Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said Tuesday that he will create a task force to minimize the wrongful jailings of people mistaken for someone else.
Baca’s move came in response to a Times investigation that found hundreds of people have been wrongly imprisoned in recent years, with some spending weeks behind bars before authorities realized their true identities.
“It’s a horrible reality of what is basically the imperfect nature of the criminal justice system,” Baca said in an interview. “No one who is an innocent person should ever be tied in with the criminal justice system....There’s a difference between saying ‘I plead not guilty.’ It’s another thing to say to anybody ‘I’m not that person.’”
Baca said his task force to minimize the problem will probably be headed up by his detectives chief, a patrol commander and a jail captain.
The wrongful incarcerations occurred more than 1,480 times in the last five years. Many of those mistakenly held inside the county’s lockups had the same names as suspects or had their identities stolen.
L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas called the jailings “a travesty of justice” and another blow to the sheriff’s jails, which are under federal investigation over allegations of inmate abuse and other deputy misconduct.
This “further erodes confidence in the County jail system — just as we are struggling to restore public confidence,” he said in a statement. “It’s not enough to say that accidents happen.”
The Times found that the jailings occur because of breakdowns not just by jail officials but by police who arrest the wrong people and by the courts, which have issued warrants that did not precisely identify the right suspects.
Because multiple jurisdictions are involved, Baca said his task force would present its recommendations to other local police agencies, with the hope that they too would adopt the reforms.
“I’m looking at how do we really get to a place where the system works as smoothly as possible,” Baca said. “The original arresting agency has to, up front, do a better job in vetting the person.... This is going to require a lot of analysis and review.... We can’t say that we can’t do better, we can always do better, but I’m dependent on other police agencies to also do better.”
Victims of mistaken identification typically go through several rounds of checks before they land in L.A. County Jail. Arresting officers use the name, birth date and driver’s license number of the person they stop to check for warrants. The first fingerprint check is usually done when officers bring the people they arrest to the police station where they are booked. From there, inmates are taken either to court or directly to County Jail.
Once inmates arrive at the jail, officials there review the fingerprints again and compare the warrant to the personal information for the inmate.
The errors occur in jails up and down the state, and many of the misidentified inmates in the L.A. County sheriff’s jails were arrested by law enforcement agencies outside the county.
In California, people who are arrested are assigned a unique nine-digit number matched to their fingerprints. Some warrants issued by judges fail to include those identifiers, making it more difficult for police and jailers to determine whether they have the right suspect.
When those fingerprint numbers are included, police agencies sometimes fail to determine why the arrested person has a different number or no number at all. In those cases, authorities could catch the error by obtaining the wanted suspect’s fingerprints from the state Department of Justice and comparing them with those of the person in custody.
The number of mistaken identifications has been declining, and the cases make up just a tiny fraction of the population inside L.A. County lockups, the largest jail system in the nation. But for those who are jailed, the experience can be harrowing.
In one case reported by The Times, a mechanic held for nine days in 1989 on a warrant meant for someone else was detained again 20 years later on the same warrant. He was jailed for more than a month the second time before the error was discovered.
In another instance, a Nissan customer service supervisor was hauled by authorities from Tennessee to L.A. County on a local sex-crimes warrant meant for someone with a similar name.
In a third case, a former construction worker mistaken for a wanted drug offender said another inmate pushed him to the floor in the showers, leaving him naked on the ground with back pain.
Los Angeles Times staff writer Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.